As the House of Commons reconvened on Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau informed Parliament that there were “credible allegations” of a “potential link” between “agents of the government of India” and the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh leader who Trudeau described as a Canadian citizen.
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As a consequence, an Indian diplomat was expelled from Canada.
The man at the centre of the diplomatic storm was gunned down in June this year, and the investigation remains open into his murder. On June 18, Nijjar, 45, was found suffering from multiple gunshot wounds inside a vehicle outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara just before 8:30 p.m. on June 18.
The RCMP’s Integrated Homicide Investigation Team (IHIT) initially sought two suspects described as “heavier-set males wearing face coverings.” However, they later said the men were not acting alone.
On Monday, Trudeau confirmed that authorities were investigating links between the murder and people linked to the Indian government. The Indian government has vehemently rejected the allegations.
Here is what we know so far.
Who is Hardeep Singh Nijjar?
Nijjar, who moved to Canada in February 1997 to be a plumber, was a key figure in the movement for an independent Khalistan — a separate homeland for Sikhs in the Indian subcontinent.
But for the Indian government, he was wanted for allegedly being a “mastermind/active member” of the Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF), which the Indian government designates as a terrorist group.
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Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, Nijjar’s friend and fellow Sikh nationalist, had told Global News in June that Nijjar said that gang members had warned him Indian intelligence agents had put a bounty on his head.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service also told Nijjar they had information that he was “under threat from professional assassins,” Pannun had said.
The 1980s and early 1990s in India saw an armed conflict between the Indian government and Sikh separatists in the Sikh-majority northern state of Punjab. Amid a crackdown on the insurgency, Nijjar’s brother was arrested by police in India. In 1995, Nijjar himself was arrested.
He claimed in a sworn affidavit to immigration officials that he was beaten and tortured for information about his brother. He said he secured a bribe, cut his hair short and escaped.
In 1997, Nijjar came to Canada, claiming he had been beaten and tortured by Indian police. In 1998, his refugee claim was denied. According to his immigration records, he used a fraudulent passport that identified him as “Ravi Sharma.”
“I know that my life would be in grave danger if I had to go back to my country, India,” he wrote in his affidavit, dated June 9, 1998.
His application was rejected, and 11 days later Nijjar married a B.C. woman who sponsored him to immigrate as her spouse.
On his application form, he was asked whether he was associated with a group that used or advocated “armed struggle or violence to reach political, religious or social objectives.”
He said “no,” but immigration officials considered it a marriage of convenience and rejected Nijjar’s application. Nijjar appealed to the courts and lost in 2001, but he later identified himself as a Canadian citizen.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada declined to comment to Global News at the time of that report, citing privacy legislation.
Nijjar ran a plumbing business in Surrey, B.C., and rose to become a prominent advocate for the creation of Khalistan — a separate Sikh nation.
He travelled around the world and called for a referendum on Khalistan and called for anti-Sikh violence in India to be recognized as “genocide.”
In 2014, a few months after India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, took office, Indian authorities issued an arrest warrant for Nijjar. New Delhi described Nijjar as the “mastermind” of the militant group Khalistan Tiger Force.
He was accused of being involved in the 2007 bombing of a cinema in Punjab. A 2016 Interpol notice against him alleged he was a “key conspirator” in the attack. He was accused of recruiting and fundraising, a charge that Nijjar vehemently denied.
After Nijjar was shot dead, his supporters protested outside the Indian consulate in Vancouver.
“This act of violence was predictable and was foreseen. It is unacceptable for us,” Jatinder Singh Grewal, director of Sikhs for Justice, said.
Several people associated with Nijjar said he had expressed fears that he was being targeted and his life was under threat. Nijjar was said to be “very vocal” about threats that were being made to him “discreetly,” and other individuals associated with the gurudwara have also faced threats.
Last week, a referendum that Nijjar had been working on was held in Surrey’s Guru Nanak Sikh Gurudwara, where Nijjar served as president. The non-binding and unofficial vote was organized by Sikhs for Justice, a group that advocates for a Khalistani nation.
What are Canadian leaders saying?
On Monday, leaders of all three major parties in Canada rose to address the matter in the House of Commons.
“Canada is a rule of law,” Trudeau told the House of Commons. “Our country, the protection of our citizens and defence of our sovereignty are fundamental.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre told the House that if the allegations are proven true, they represent an “outrageous affront” to Canadian sovereignty. He called on the Indian government to cooperate with “utmost transparency”.
But the most emotional appeal came from NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who is the first Sikh-Canadian to lead a major Canadian political party.
Singh, who is banned from travelling to India, spoke in Punjabi in the House.
“All I want to say in Punjabi is everything we heard today, we all knew as children that the Indian government commits many atrocities. But we never thought we’d have to face this danger after coming here, to Canada. I want to say to everyone, that I am here,” he said.
“With whatever strength I have, I will not budge till justice is served in this case. I will not budge till every link is investigated and justice is served.”
With files from Global’s Stewart Bell, Elizabeth McSheffrey, Christa Dao, Darrian Matassa-Fung